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Should I Choose a Headless CMS for My Next Website?

A Non-Technical Introduction for Marketing Professionals

Headless CMSs (content management systems) are growing in popularity.

It can be easy to see why: a system that separates back-end content from the front-end layer allowing for multiple uses of the content data is, at first glance, appealing.

And for a lot of businesses that have the resources to invest, this separation can allow for maneuverability of website design and scalability.

But for many companies, a headless CMS might just be overkill.

So, how do you figure out if a headless website is a good idea for you? We’re glad you asked.

What is a headless CMS?

To fully understand what a headless CMS is, it also helps to understand what it’s not.

There are three general types of CMS: headless, decoupled, and the traditional monolithic.

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Headless CMS

A headless CMS is a content management system that is separated from the front-end layer.

But what does this even mean?

In simple web development terms, there are two general components: the backend content and the frontend presentation layer.

The backend content is usually the responsibility of the backend developers, while the frontend presentation layer – or the “head” – is the responsibility of the web designers.

This layer is what you see when you go to a website.

Think of a theatre: there’s a front stage that everyone sees, and then there’s the backstage where all the inner workings and functions happen.

With a headless CMS, picture the backstage as more of a travelling backstage and there’s, well, no frontstage.

Maybe the analogy is a stretch, but hopefully it paints a picture of what we’re saying.

A headless CMS is just the backend layer.

That’s basically it.

It’s like a content repository and focuses strictly on an authored-content system that allows for collaboration on the backend, without any particular output.

Monolithic or “traditional” CMS

In contrast to the headless CMS model, a monolithic CMS model is one that includes both the backend and frontend layer all connected. Remember that theatre analogy? Monolithic CMSs include both the frontstage and the backstage all in one package.

Traditional CMS software needs to either be installed or managed on a server environment.

A common example of this is a WordPress website. Drupal and Sitecore also fit in this category.

The pros to monolithic systems are that all the functions are packaged into one CMS. Users therefore only have to work with one system, right from development to design and deployment.

Decoupled CMS

In contrast to a headless or traditional CMS, a decoupled CMS is the “in-between” CMS model.

It’s not entirely monolithic as in the traditional CMS, but neither is it headless. It’s a CMS that prepares all the data content and then pushes it into a delivery environment where it is “active.”

Basically, the data from the backend is published somewhere regardless of whether calls are being made to the API.

Examples of this include Butter, Contentstack, Contentful and dotCMS.

The difference between a decoupled CMS and a headless one is that the data in a headless CMS sits idly until a request is sent for content.

Why is headless CMS increasing in popularity?

The point of a headless CMS isn’t that you don’t want or need a head.

In the website development world, headless CMSs are increasing in popularity primarily because of the ability to pick and choose which heads (or outputs) content is sent to.

This way, it allows more autonomy, flexibility and more scalability. Content can be sent to multiple platforms at once.

Mostly, headless CMSs are increasing in popularity because we rely on so many connected devices – smartphones, tablets and so on. Each platform requires slightly different heads, or layers. The frontend needs to be formatted for that particular platform, as in an app versus a web browser.

With a headless CMS, the same backend data can be translated into multiple different frontend layers depending on the application needed.

What are the benefits of a headless website?

There are a few benefits to a headless website that make it appealing:

  • You have autonomy over which heads (outputs) you send your content to
  • It can work across techs as the frontend website can be built using whatever languages or tools you like
  • It’s fairly easy to scale
    You can bring data into a single content hub
  • It enables simultaneous collaboration for team development

The autonomy and ability to work across technologies makes a headless website appealing to a lot of businesses. But it’s not for everyone.

Hopping on board with headless does have its drawbacks, so your choice really depends on your business needs and goals.

What are the drawbacks of a headless website?

The drawbacks of a headless website can be numerous, depending on what you need your CMS to do.

  • A headless website requires a higher technical proficiency to use
  • Quick and easy content updates aren’t as, well, quick and easy
  • You’re responsible for your own scaling and operations
  • Management of multiple systems can be challenging and time consuming
  • There are no out-of-the-box templates or widgets to rely on

The biggest concern about headless CMSs is the investment in resources required to get off the ground and maintain the website.

It takes a high level of technical expertise, and it isn’t as easy as logging into your WYSIWYG editor and making the changes yourself.

You need a developer and documentation.

And for that reason, a headless implementation isn’t necessary for most SMBs. It’s just overkill.

How to decide if headless is right for you

Deciding what type of CMS is right for your business depends on what you need your website to do.

A few questions to ask yourself are:

  • Am I delivering content in different locations?
  • Am I willing to invest in multiple platforms?
  • Do I have complex ecommerce or high-volume publishing to manage?
  • Do I have a large team who all need to access and upload content at the same time?
  • Do I have a developer on hand who can update it?
  • What is my data volume?
  • How much labour can I invest in website building?
  • Am I comfortable with my data not living on my own infrastructure?
  • Am I comfortable with not being able to make content changes myself?

These are a lot of questions, we know. But thinking about these questions in advance of hopping on board a new technology can help save a lot of time, money and frustration in the future.

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Conclusion

Here’s the thing: new technology can be exciting. But, with the fast-paced world of digital marketing, getting caught up in the swell of that excitement can be… well, costly.

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At the end of the day, you need to feel comfortable with the choices you make regarding your website, and that includes your team’s comfort as well.

If a headless website turns out to be more investment than return, then it may not be the best investment for you.

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